Gary Leiser’s collection of medieval Islamic coins now graces Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University in Salem. photo provided
Gary Leiser’s collection of medieval Islamic coins now graces Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University in Salem. photo provided
Over a long career as a federal civil servant living and working in the Middle East, Gary Leiser developed an interest in medieval Islamic coins.

“I began collecting — unsystematically,” he told The Nugget. “I had a tendency to haunt junk shops. To call them antique shops would be a little bit charitable. You never know what you’re going to stumble across in a junk shop.”

Over more than two decades of junk-shop haunting in Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and other Middle Eastern nations, Leiser stumbled across a lot. His unsystematic but pleasurable treasure hunting led to the accumulation of a trove of some 500 historic coins. Now, after two years of cataloguing and organizing his collection, Leiser has donated it to Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University in Salem, where the collection is on display in the “Gold of the Caliphs” exhibition through 2021.

In recent years, Leiser decided he wanted to do something with the collection — something other than selling it. He didn’t want to see the collection diffused among a variety of individual coin collectors.

“I didn’t need the funds, and I thought it was important to have a collection somewhere that was accessible to students,” he said.

Coins can reveal a great deal about a civilization.

“You can discover political and religious trends; the rise and fall of dynasties,” Leiser said.

Archaeologists love to find coins in situ because it makes their work easier and more definitive.

“Coins are about the only thing that come out of the earth with a date on them,” Leiser said.

Leiser’s collection spans Islamic history, but is mostly concentrated in the 10th through 13th centuries, which roughly corresponds with the era of the Crusades to the Mongol invasion of the Middle East.

The “Gold of the Caliphs” exhibit program, which Leiser wrote, is a fascinating exploration of the development of Islamic coinage in a territory that extended at the height of Muslim expansion from Spain to Central Asia. The 75 coins featured in the exhibition tell an economic, political and religious story. As the program notes, “religious inscriptions (on coins) reflected both ideology and the basis of political power.”

As a special feature, the exhibition includes the world’s oldest coin, minted in the 6th century BCE in ancient Lydia on the southwest coast of modern-day Turkey.

For information on visiting the museum exhibit go to https://willamette.edu/arts/hfma/index.html. The museum is open, but access is limited due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Leiser, who grew up in Oregon, has nurtured a life-long interest in the Middle East.

He studied anthropology and Middle East Studies at Portland State University, where he received his Bachelor of Arts in 1969, and attended the British Middle East Centre for Arab Studies at Shemlan, Lebanon. He completed his doctorate in medieval Middle Eastern history at the University of Pennsylvania in 1976.

Finding that academic jobs were scarce, he worked for the U.S. Defense Department in various capacities until his retirement in 2008. He lived and worked in Turkey for a number of years and has published widely on the social history of the medieval Middle East. He has translated the most important historical works of M.F. Köprülü, a leading Turkish historian of the 20th century.

He has worked as part of a team of translators on a 17th century Turkish geographical work titled “Panorama of the World,” which was the first geographical work out of the Islamic world that accounted for the New World. Leiser expects that work to be published by the end of the year.